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Created by davidg on Apr 21, 2008
Last updated: 10/26/10 at 11:56 PM
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Looking back at 2009 I’d probably characterize it as my year of travel and exploration in China – I took 24 flights and was privileged to visit and stay in many amazing places I had never been before. Along the way I’ve learnt a huge amount about Chinese culture which continues to fascinate and bewilder me in equal measure. Having become familiar with where things are and how things work, life in Shenzhen has become fairly routine. Given my list of goals last year I thought it was about time to review them and set some new ones for the coming twenty ten:
2009 goals in review:
Gain basic fluency in Mandarin – failed (while my vocab has improved grammar is still non-existant)
Improve photography skills – achieved (although I’ve still got a long way to go I’m quite happy with my results recently)
Get fitter through more regular exercise – moderate improvement (but need to schedule more regular activities)
Cook more – achieved (and learnt a few new dishes along the way)
Stay focused and filter out distractions – failed (I read more than ever and have way too many projects on the go)
Redesign blog template – achieved (you’re looking at it now)
3.5 out of 6 isn’t too bad in my book but the language part is rather frustrating.
Create and stick to a schedule for language learning and fitness
Start a business of some sort and see it through (more on this later)
Improve writing skills and user participation in blog
Create more video content and how-to guides
Visit Japan – something I’ve wanted to do for many years
Learn how to cope with stress better (and sleep more!)
Finally I’d like to say a BIG thank you to everyone who reads RandomWire – this year traffic has nearly doubled and my only wish is that I had time to write more content for it. In an ideal world I’d love to be able to do this full-time in some capacity but for now it’ll continue as a labour of love blissfully free of ads (although if anyone is interested in sponsorship do get in touch).
As with last year I’ll leave you with an appropriately titled track from the ever-manic Capsule:
A very Happy New Year to all
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Having spent Christmas 2008 in China it seemed a bit of a pity to miss out on the festivities for a second year running so I decided to make a last-minute surprise visit home without telling anyone I was coming.
After nearly 20 hours of travelling I flew into Norwich via Amsterdam from Hong Kong on the morning of Christmas Eve and turned up on my parents doorstep shortly before midday. To say people were surprised would be an understatement (luckily none of my family have heart conditions!).
It felt rather weird to be thrust directly into the Christmas spirit without the usual months of buildup which usually proceed it in the UK. It was however much nicer to experience it in person rather than through a Skype webcam session as was last year (however novel it may have been).
Of course food is a big part of Christmas and the traditional turkey is a must. While looking like a big chicken the taste is markedly stronger and more flavourful. As ever my mum excelled herself – the 8,000 mile trip was almost worth it just for this! I often wonder why people only eat turkey once a year…
Coming from the relatively warm south of China to the freezing south-east of the UK was a bit of a shock to the system but being a hardy Brit my body soon adjusted and a few nice walks outside in near zero degree conditions were had. Although there was a bit of snow when I first arrived most of it had thawed after a couple of days.
I have a terrible memory but was happy to find that after nearly a year of not driving that the old skills hadn’t disappeared. I always find it’s weird how your brain is able to learn and retain certain complex things as if they were second nature but for other simpler things it’s near impossible (for me anyway).
I’ll be heading back to China on January 4th so get to enjoy jet lag twice in so many weeks. Hopefully someone will invent a teleportation device before too long!
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After the Beijing 2008 Olympics most people anticipated that internet censorship in China would ease but contrary to expectations the situation continues to get worse with more sites being blocked by the week (see whatblocked.com for the latest). Traditionally people bypassed the blocks using anonymous proxies and other free services but many of these have also been barred by the government and those which remain are usually so overwhelmed that service is patchy and slow at best. The best solution for foreigners in China and anyone wanting to access sites such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook these days is to get a personal VPN account using one of the commercial services available.
A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, basically allows you to create a secure tunnel through your existing internet connection to a server in another country (usually Europe or America) where you can then enjoy complete freedom to surf as you would anywhere else. The technology is exactly the same as corporations use to allow their employees to work from home but is now available for personal use. Whilst it isn’t free they’re usually a lot more reliable and faster than the alternatives.
I recently got the opportunity to try a relative newcomer to the area called 12vpn (having also previously reviewed Witopia). Founded in 2008 by a group of expats in Asia who began by offering IT services to businesses, Anuson Limited opened up their VPN solution to end-users earlier this year.
They offer two basic packages for individuals – “Lite” ($2.95/month) and “Personal” ($9.95/month) with the only real difference being that the latter offers a higher bandwidth cap (10gb vs 100gb per month). Both provide multiple protocols for accessing the service (OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP, IPSec, and Cisco) meaning that you can use it on virtually any device. I tested it on a Windows 7 laptop, a MacBook Pro running Snow Leopard and my iPhone (first generation).
First impressions were good – sign-up is easy with a variety of payment options including PayPal and a 7-day money back guarantee if you’re not satisfied. Once this is complete you’re provided with setup instructions and emailed security certificates which allow you to connect to the service. The configuration steps are fairly simple although a little more involved than Witopia which provides an automated installer. As this is a true VPN service (not a proxy) all your applications will work without any need to change anything – you just hit connect, enter your password, and away you go.
For Mac users if you pay yearly you’ll get a license for Viscosity which offers a nicer user experience over the open source Tunnelblick alternative (the client used to connect to the VPN service).
The first thing you’ll notice once your connected with 12vpn is that you can now access to all your favourite sites again. The second thing is the big speed improvement for international sites. Whilst your download/upload speed is still limited to your physical connection things feel a lot quicker since the route the traffic is taking is far more direct and stable. In my tests YouTube videos streamed with minimal buffering time and downloading using BitTorrent worked without any issues. In comparison to Witopia there isn’t any noticeable speed difference although 12vpn felt faster to connect but this isn’t something I can verify.
The service also offers a choice of servers in the US and UK which you can choose to use although I found the default to be more than adequate. If you want to use services like BBC iPlayer or Spotify then be sure to connect to the London server (and vice versa for US services).
One of the great thing about 12vpn is that you can also use it on your smartphone (using L2TP usually). Setting it up on my iPhone was simply a matter of emailing myself a configuration file which when opened on the phone set everything up without any need to delve into any technical details. In China most people still use EDGE on their mobile for data services (3G coverage is patchy) and I had no problems connecting. This was far easier than with Witopia which I could never get to work on my phone in the past. Being able to twitter on the go is a small pleasure but one which is strangely appreciated when so far from home.
12vpn is a great service that I would recommend to anyone needing to bypass the great firewall or just those looking for an extra layer of security. Where the service differentiates and excels in comparison to the competition is in its flexibility to be used transparently on almost any device you might have with minimal fuss. While in an ideal world a VPN wouldn’t be necessary it’s a small price to pay for freedom.
12vpn have kindly offered to give RandomWire readers who sign up before January 15th 2010 a 5% discount – enter the promotional code RANDOMWIRE when you sign-up to qualify.
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Yes this is another post featuring a big Buddha but this time it’s in a city you’ve probably never heard of.
Ningbo is a seaport city of around 2 million people facing the East China sea, not far from Shanghai. The city is primarily oriented around trade and while it isn’t particularly famous it did have one interesting brush with history when during World War II the Japan bombed the city with fleas carrying the bubonic plague. From this (and many other atrocities) you can get an idea why China still has such a deep hatred for their easterly neighbors.
I visited for a little over a day at the end of my previous trip around Jiangnan province and was pleasantly surprised to find clean and modern city, quite different from most other middle-tier Chinese cities. After being treated to a sumptuous lunch I was taken to a brand new temple about half an hour outside the city center. Clearly the economic troubles were having little effect here as the temple had one of the biggest bronze Buddhas I had ever seen sitting atop the hillside.
After this we paid a visit to the ancestral home of Chiang Kai-Shek nearby who was the Nationalist leader of China before the uprising of the Communist party (whom he had attempted to eradicate after the Japanese surrender in WWII). Surprisingly Chinese sentiments towards him are quite good (at least the people I spoke to) and the museum paints a fair picture of his life without any demonization you might expect. He died in Taipei in 1975.
In the evening we went for dinner in a restaurant near the port district. I have discussed at length in the past about my hatred for seafood but somehow everywhere I go people always want me to taste the local marine wildlife. This time it was “hairy crabs” which believe me are as nasty as they sound. I really cannot fathom what makes people want to crack open these Alien facehugger-esq creatures and suck out their “tasty” flesh. For future reference this is how it makes me feel to eat one of these:
Whilst Ningbo was a great day trip please people, no more seafood!
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It struck me the other day that most of the great internet companies and services which have seen massive success in recent years were in many ways a result of coincidental evolution rather than by prior design. That is to say few of them started off life how we know them today and that most came from small groups or individuals rather than massive corporations. Here are a few examples to name but a few:
Flickr was originally built as part of an online multiplayer game
Facebook started life as a student information directory at Harvard
Twitter began as an internal project at a company doing something completely different
YouTube came about when the founders couldn’t find an easy way to share videos
Some people will put this down to luck or being at the right place at the right time but to a larger degree all these people were just trying to solve problems they were experiencing themselves. They didn’t start out thinking “I’m going to build the next worldwide communications platform” or anything so grand but rather were creating something to suit their own needs. Once it became clear that what they had made would be useful to others then things took off and evolved.
From this perspective one might argue that success is not something which can be designed but rather the result of something far less tangible. A smart person alone wont necessarily be successful even if they do everything they plan perfectly and likewise the perfect solution may be too specific to be useful to anyone else. The creation of something new by definition is not a well defined process.
Another part of this is innovation. A product which allows you to do something quicker, easier and for less might have something going for it but to be revolutionary it has to do it in a way which has never been done before. Twitter generated the perfect storm for this by providing simplicity with a new mode of instant messaging. A key point here is not to do something different for the sake of it but to do something different in a way which improves on what came before or opens entirely new doors.
With all this in mind I think there are a few key points to bear in mind for anyone with a “killer idea”:
Great things happen when you are scratching your own itch
Provide real value by allowing people to do more with less
Innovation comes from people, not corporate strategies
Long term planning is overrated when the ground beneath you is shifting so fast
There are obvious exceptions to these rules, Apple being one of them, but these are few and far between (there is only one Steve Jobs after all). Most large companies manage to succeed through sheer momentum gained by their early growth and user dependence. Case in point Microsoft makes pretty shoddy products but still makes tonnes of money because their users are hooked into a perpetual upgrade cycle. I would give an analogy to a drug dealers but perhaps that would be going a little far!
I’d be interested to hear what you think on this. Can success be designed or is it something far more organic?
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Here’s a little tip for men in China hoping to avoid public castigation: don’t wear a green hat. Unfortunately this advice came a little late for me, but first a little background as to why it’s a cultural faux pas over here:
In China “wearing a green hat” (戴绿帽子 or dài lǜ mào zǐ) is an expression that Chinese use when a woman cheats on her husband or boyfriend because the phrase sounds similar to the word for cuckold. This apparently dates back to the Ming dynasty when the relatives of prostitutes were forced to wear green hats.
If you’re given a green hat by your significant other then the news is probably not good. To wear one is to be a bit of a dim idiot! In addition giving someone shoes or a watch is also a no-no as it signifies that your relationship is coming to an end.
These are just a few examples of how language and symbolism are closely intertwined in China. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told to watch my pronunciation because a certain word sounds like the meaning of something else undesirable. I’d be interested to see if anyone has a list of the most common ones. Would certainly come in handy for hapless travellers and expats alike
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Given my recent busyness I never got a chance to conclude the write-up of my previous mammoth mid-autumn trip around Jiangnan province. The third stop on this epic journey was the world-famous city of Hangzhou which lies about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai and is renowned for its beautiful West Lake as well as other historic sites.
To see Hangzhou properly you’ll need at least two or three days – one for the West Lake and the rest for surrounding places of interest. You can hire bicycle very cheaply from bike stations around the city – these come with automatic locks which allow you to hop on and off wherever you like. Don’t forget to take your passport as proof of identity when you first register.
One of the most interesting places I visited, slightly off the usual tourist trail, was the former residence of Hu Xueyan (胡雪岩故居) which is a colossal private house that was built by a rich business man around 1872 (Qing Dynasty). Recently restored in 2001 the house is enclosed on all sides by high walls which hide much of the grandeur which lies within.
Inside is a complex labyrinth of exquisite courtyards, landscaped gardens, towers and sumptuously furnished chambers. Examples of the highest levels of craftsmanship can be seen everywhere with intricate stone/wooden carvings having been lovingly restored at a cost of 29 million yuan. Amazingly for a national holiday it was surprisingly quiet and a nice place to relax away from the crowds.
Back in the hustle and bustle Hefang Old Street (河坊街) is a pedestrian area full of shops, restaurants and street food vendors. While most people passing through are tourists it’s worth a look, especially if your after souvenirs. Be prepared to queue if you’re going for dinner because most of the popular restaurants are often packed to bursting.
Along the street were a number of intriguing traditional Chinese medicine shops which were full of unfamiliar sights and smells. Despite the growing use of western medicine many people still rely heavily on this type of medicine to treat all manner of ailments – as to its effectiveness I have no idea but many swear by it. One shop was proudly displaying various ginseng roots, some of which cost the price of a modest house!
On every trip I take there is usually at least one occasion when I get hopelessly lost. Such an occasion occurred in Hangzhou when I decided to cycle over the Qiantang River but vastly underestimated a) how far it was for the river and b) how wide the river was.
The river is known for the world’s largest tidal bore at this time of year, which is up to 9 metres high, and travels at up to 25 miles an hour. The original idea was to try and catch it but after nearly two hours of cycling the sun was setting and although I had crossed the river it looked like I had missed the main event.
I was clearly in uncharted territory and didn’t fancy the ride back (uphill all the way). Luckily after consulting Google Maps on my iPhone and the help of a bored security guard I managed to find a bike station not far from the opposite side of the bridge and took the bus the rest of the way back into town.
My lasting memory of Hangzhou will be walking along the lake-side at night and looking out over the still water. For all China’s crazy busyness its nice to know that you can still find a moment of peace and quiet.
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When meeting friends and family from home one of the first questions your asked is “What’s it like living in China?“. This always causes me to pause and reflect for a moment because with such a large and varied country where do you start? Given you might only have 30 seconds to pitch life in China it’s wise to have a brief elevator speech ready. For future reference here’s mine:
“Big and Crowded”
Imagine a large crowd of people in the street. Now times this crowd by about a thousand and you’ll get an idea of the population density in big cities here. Forget peaceful suburbia, gardens and privacy, often you feel like you’re living in a battery farm surrounded by high-rise buildings. Everything in China is on an epic scale.
Contrary to what you might have heard on the news China is a country full of extremes, both good and bad. Traditional and modern, closed and open, poor and rich, slow and fast all exist together in an uneasy harmony which the government tries to maintain tight control over (with mixed results).
“Life is Fragile”
China is developing so rapidly that often safety is sacrificed for the sake of speed. Reports of accidents which result in untimely ends are a daily occurrence. Even on the roads drivers trust lucky charms over seat belts and the buses are so over-crowded that saying a few Hail Mary’s is almost mandatory when boarding.
While the novelty of living here does tend to wear thin at times there’s always something new to discover and explore. Although my Chinese is extremely limited I’ve learnt how to get by and life is quite comfortable. China is generally friendly towards foreigners as long as you respect their culture.
“It’s good but I’m trying to make it better”
The quote above is how a Chinese friend responded when I asked them the same question. Although not entirely helpful to outsiders I found it quite inspiring and a positive reflection on at least a portion of China’s youth who will inherit this vast land with all it’s intricate complexities.
For those who live here: how would you try to explain China to outsiders?
N.b. I’ve been feeling pretty under the weather for the past week while being super busy with work hence the relative air of quietness around here. Lots of good stuff in the pipeline!
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I’ve not done a film review in a long time and to be honest I’ve not managed to keep up with Asian Cinema as much as I used to but this said I saw a Korean film over the weekend which is worth mentioning: Thirst (박쥐 – literally translated as “bat”).
From legendary director Park Chan-Wook (Old Boy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, I’m a Cyborg…) the film premiered earlier this year but has only recently come out on DVD so I finally had a chance to get hold of a subtitled copy. Anyone who’s watched his previous works will know that you’re in for a brutally visual tour de force and although it’s not nearly as extreme as Old Boy it does not disappoint. From the outset it’s a beautifully crafted narrative with excellent acting, a stirring soundtrack, luscious backdrops and a few good stunts which are genuinely exciting (unlike most of the todays CGI-fests).
As with all Mr. Chan-Wooks films it’s a bit difficult to know where to begin when explaining the story. Perhaps I could best sum it up as Catholic-vampire-noir but with very adult overtones which go way beyond your usual sharp-teeth blood-sucking clichés. At this point it’s worth pointing out that about one-third of South Korea’s 45 million population are Christian and numbers are growing faster than in any other country (in stark contrast to its decay in the west).
The story revolves around a troubled priest, Sang-hyun (played by Song Kang-ho), who works in a small hospital but is unsure about his vocation which is amplified by the death he sees around him. He volunteers to take part in an experimental drug trial in Africa with fails, leaving him with a particularly nasty and fatal disease but miraculously after a blood transfusion he recovers.
Returning to his home he becomes a local hero (a “bandaged saint”) and devoted parishioners, thinking that he has the gift of healing, flock to his services. One of the visitors is his childhood friend who invites him to his house to play mahjong with his family. There he meets his friend’s wife, Tae-ju (played by Kim Ok-bin), who he finds himself dangerously drawn to. We discover a particularly dysfunctional family with an overbearing mother who treats her grown son as a baby and his wife as their servant.
Suddenly one night Sang-hyun relapses and violently collapses only to wake up the next day a changed person with an increasing taste for blood (which he initially steals from comatose patients at the hospital). His personal demons return full force and from here on in things start to get crazy. He begins an affair with Tae-ju who is also pretty messed up, having been forced into her marriage, and the intensity builds with both willing each other to deeper extremes until finally murder is committed.
I wont give the rest away but sufficed to say it gets pretty horrific with much lustful blood-letting and general insanity. There’s also a hint of Shakespeare in here with multiple layers of subtext which will take repeat viewings to unravel. It adds a whole new dimension to the Catholic sacrament (whereby it’s actually believed that the wine is turned into Christ’s blood)!
Trailer (Korean Version):
Trailer (International Version):
Overall a unique take on the vampire concept with some thrilling twists but imperfect in its execution (7/10).
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Left: Jinmao Tower (Grand Hyatt), Right: World Finance Center (Park Hyatt)
I think I’m going to start a new category for “posh hotels I’ve stayed in without paying” as this is the second time in 3 months I’ve tasted the 5-star treatment courtesy of others generosity. Frankly I don’t much like hanging around with people who have more money than sense but the experience does deserve documenting for the luscious interior design at the very least.
The Park Hyatt Shanghai (as opposed to the Grand Hyatt next door) currently holds the title of the worlds highest hotel, situated near the top of the worlds third highest building – the World Finance Center. Ascending at 16 m/second in the turbo lift you feel your ears popping but this is soon forgotten when the doors to the 87th floor lobby open and your breath is taken away by the stunning panoramic views out of the floor to ceiling windows.
The shimmering exterior of the building (Japanese designed) is matched only by its stunning interior which I would best describe as mature yet modern; in other words sophisticated. In the enormous rooms cool creams and deep blacks are offset by the occasional hint of colour which in the case of the shiny green apples immediately draws your eye like forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. Temptation is all around.
Designed by New York interior designer Tony Chi one might be forgive for thinking you’d entered a monochromatic world where Chinese zen meets high-tech perfectionism. In the stone-walled bathroom a waterfall-like shower cascades from the top of the 10-foot high ceilings with pinpoint precision and a screen inset in the mirror allows you to catch up on the day’s news while brushing your teeth!
On cloud/smog-free days the views from the rooms are nothing short of breathtaking (“perfect” as the concierge described it) and waking up on Saturday morning I couldn’t resist taking a video of the automatic blinds opening to reveal the sweeping metropolis below. If you ever wanted to feel like a king for the day this is a good option
Breakfast was equally decadent (and expensive) with every type of cuisine and taste catered for. Predictably it was all delicious and second helpings were called for. It was also a good opportunity for people watching. I have observed that more often than not groups of wealthy people act like spoilt kids – to work here you’d need the patience of a saint.
Back in the room free wi-fi is provided which makes a nice change from the normally over-priced options which many other hotels push on their customers and with such an expansive space they are also perfect for working - deluxe rooms also come with a large lacquered wooden table fit for an informal meeting.
Compared with my previous 5-star experience at the W in Seoul this goes way beyond in terms of sheer luxury but is clearly targeted at a different demographic (hip and trendy vs. sophisticated and mature). If you have a chance to stay it’ll definitely be a memorable one.
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Ok, so you probably don’t read too many blog posts about toilets but stick with me!
Last weekend I was lucky enough to stay in the Park Hyatt Shanghai hotel (free on someones reward points again) and while everything was amazing, one thing stood out in particular: the toilet. As long as it’s western style I’m not to fussy about loos but what I found in my bathroom went beyond anything imaginable. First of all the toilet lid automatically raised itself when you entered (see video below), had a heated seat and automatic flush but way beyond this was the remote control which was hung on the wall (see photo above). Yes you heard me right – the toilet had a remote control. For the life of me I can’t work out the use case of this apart from for playing practical jokes.
I’m used to toilets with only 1 button/lever but this thing had 27 of them including a LCD display to customise every aspect of the experience. While the technology may be advanced the functionality was scary – with labels like “Wand Cleaning” and “Pulsating” it took on a terminator like menace which was constantly a button press away. I decided to say way well clear.
I’m guessing this probably comes from Japan who have a long history of high-tech toilets with even more crazy features such as: automatic air deodorizing and conditioning, music to relax the user’s sphincter, germ-resistant surfaces which glow in the dark, a power saving mode that warms the toilet seat based on historic usage patterns, a talking voice that greet the user, and even inbuilt wi-fi! The mind boggles.
Frankly I think this all a bit much. If you get to the point where your toilet has 27 buttons then evolution has probably reached its limit and it’s all downhill from here. This company badly needs Apple to consult it about simplification of the UI but I’m not sure the world is ready for a multi-touch toilet yet!
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During my previous trip to Wuzhen (an ancient canal town near Shanghai) I was lucky enough to come across an old silk production factory which was still in active use, albeit mainly as a living museum these days. The process of turning a silkworm cocoon into fabric, known as sericulture, is fascinating so I took some photos and videos to show how it’s done:
Silkworms (technically moths) are cultivated in controlled environments with a female laying up to 400 eggs at a time. Once hatched, the larvae are fed huge quantities of mulberry leaves (up to 50,000 times its initial weight!) for around six-weeks after which it spins a silk cocoon around itself (pupating). During this time it produces about a kilometer of silk filament in 3-8 days. At this stage the silkworm cocoons are ready for use and are sorted by hand with the bad ones being removed.
Next the cocoons are boiled in water to soften the silk and prepare it for unwinding. The immersion in hot water also kills the silkworm larvae (predictably animal activists don’t like this bit).
Multiple strands of silk from 4-8 cocoons are joined to create a single strand making it much stronger. Amazingly around 5500 silkworms are required to produce just 1 kg of silk.
Each thread is then spun on to a reel by machine (known as filature). Raw silk contains sericin (a binding protein) which needs to be washed out at the same time before it can be used commercially.
The video above also shows the traditional manual method by which the spinning wheel was operated and more of how the automated machine operates.
Once spun into a yarn the thread can then woven into a fabric. The contraption above is so complicated it has to be operated by two people with a woman sitting on top allow the weaving of complex multi-coloured patterns. It strangely reminded me of a church organ with foot pedals and complex patterns to be followed. No computer aided design around here!
The end result is a highly desirable and expensive fabric which is popular around the world with most of it coming from China and India. The next time you buy something silk bear a thought for all the silkworms which died to make it for you
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